No Banana Republic
If you look at the seemingly Teflon career of Matt Hancock (dry your eyes mate) and the torrent of information about corruption and nepotism disclosed by the Good Law Project, which last week proved in the high court that the government had breached what the judge called the “vital public function” of transparency over “vast quantities” of taxpayers’ money. They revealed a “VIP fast-lane” for PPE contracts that made the contacts of ministers, MPs, peers and officials 10 times more likely to win contracts.
It is a confirmation that has shocked few but has left the Queen feeling “saddened”. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have informed Her Majesty that they will not be returning as working members of the Royal family. Buckingham Palace announced the decision after the Queen wrote to the couple, confirming that in stepping away from official duties, it was not possible to continue with “the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service”.
Sure Nicholas Witchell was upset and HELLO must be bereft. But the allure of the Royals has been eroded over decades and has very little goodwill left in the bank. The shine and glamour, the allure of Monarchy is not so much tarnished as trashed. Reduced to the American talkshow circuit, Harry and Meghan have left the institution – what Nairn described as both the apex and essence of the pseudo-modern British state, the symbol of a national backwardness.
From the People’s Princess to the Late Late Show
If Diana’s death unleashed a weird flood of national grievance in 1997, twenty four years later the latest setback barely summoned a couple of days headlines in the re-tops. If the People’s Princess death provoked a rash of ‘national’ introspection the latest royal crisis was marked with mass disinterest.
For a nation struggling with pandemic we have been left abandoned by the Windsors who are mired in their own sleaze and scandal. Even if the myth of the Blitz spirit, a trope so often called upon in Brexitland Britain was a fiction, the Royals have been conspicuous by their absence during covid, an ill-thought-out trip to Edinburgh aside.
The myth of Britain as a place and a story that can be updated takes a hit from this. Like in much of British society we are hurtling backwards. The soft story we were told of Harry and Meghan as a contemporary couple – updating and refreshing a tired institution has failed. The most modest vanilla multiculturalism was impossible. The institutions of Britain could not cope with even the most simple expression of contemporary culture.
A series of government memos unearthed in the National Archives reveal that Elizabeth Windsor’s private lawyer put pressure on ministers to alter proposed legislation to prevent her shareholdings from being disclosed to the public.
Following the Queen’s intervention, the government inserted a clause into the law granting itself the power to exempt companies used by “heads of state” from new transparency measures.
The arrangement, which was concocted in the 1970s, was used in effect to create a state-backed shell corporation which is understood to have placed a veil of secrecy over the Queen’s private shareholdings and investments until at least 2011.
None of this is new.
In 2017 the Paradise Papers showed that the Duchy of Lancaster, which manages investments for the Queen’s £520m private estate, invested around £10m in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda-based funds. It also showed that the Queen holds investments in businesses including BrightHouse, which has been accused of exploiting people with mental health problems and learning disabilities in order to sell its products.
The attempt to separate the Queen from “her advisors” can’t be allowed to stand. The Duchy of Lancaster is a private estate managed specifically to generate a return for the reigning monarch. That is its sole purpose.
It was set up in 1399 and manages investments held in trust for the Queen. The most recent filings (March 2017) show it had assets worth £519m.
Only astonishing levels of fealty and patriotic self-delusion allow this to be maintained.
Remember when Diana died and the country went into meltdown because of the way the Queen responded (or something). Blair talked of the “People’s Princess” and Elton John sang a Candle in the Wind and everyone cried for weeks? Imagine if people actually responded now with just a fraction of the same emotional intensity to these revelations?
As the author and investigative journalist Kevin Cahill has pointed out, wealth is about land:
“The world’s primary feudal landowner is Queen Elizabeth II. She is Queen of 32 countries, head of a Commonwealth of 54 countries in which a quarter of the world’s population lives, and legal owner of about 6.6 billion acres of land, one-sixth of the earth’s land surface. Her position is a relic of the last and largest land empire in history, rumours of whose demise would appear to be somewhat premature based on her position and possessions. But her power is real, or at least legally real, and it derives from a tradition based on a specific and unbalanced relationship between rulers and the ruled.”
Of the world’s 24 largest tax havens, the Queen is sovereign of no fewer than 13.
These two twin scandals – the PPE and the cronyism, and beside it the collapse of the Royal family are not two separate and distinct phenomenon. Britain is exposed to scandal and a dreadful lack of transparency because it is a feudal relic.
Britain is irredeemable.
As we move towards self-determination the argument has always been “don’t talk of a republic”, a constitutional version of not frightening the horses. But, to keep the equine metaphor going, that horse has bolted. As we plan the constitution of a Scottish democracy it’s become essential that we frame that in terms of being a new republic. The only people who will mourn the Royal family won’t be voting yes anyway.